How a Lifetime Love for Art Led Adelia Schleusz to Her Biggest Canvases Yet

Interior designer Adelia Schleusz has many creative talents. She sings. She paints. She draws.

As a child, she would often draw quick sketches on napkins, receipts or scraps of paper to capture memorable moments while traveling the world with her family.

Now, as the Global Practice Director of Education Interiors for HKS, her biggest canvases are the numerous educational buildings that she has brought to life through her work. And while art and creativity come naturally to Schleusz, interior design isn’t her first career. She worked with children as a behavioral health specialist for nearly 10 years before realizing her true calling was elsewhere.

“There’s always something new in interior design,” she said. “There’s always something different, and there’s always something to solve for.”

Military Upbringing as a ‘Third Culture Kid’

Schleusz credits her ambition and adaptability to her upbringing as a “third-culture kid” who spent her formative years moving from place to place with her military family after being born at a U.S. Army base.

Her father arrived in the U.S. from his native Bolivia in 1970 with a dream, a backpack and $6.75 in his back pocket. He later joined the U.S. Army, became a U.S. citizen, and retired as a Sergeant Major after 30 years of service. He taught his four children to have tough skin in the midst of change and challenge.

Her  mother was a compassionate and influential leader in the family. She took on the role of the educator, helping the children maintain their studies as the family moved from base to base. She encouraged exploration, creativity and kindness and never passed up an opportunity to correct the grammar in the newspaper, Schleusz said.

The kids learned to speak both English and Spanish, keeping in touch with their Latin American roots. They spent summers in Bolivia, sometimes attending school there because the country offers year-round schooling. Schleusz’s approach to her many new environments – 15 homes to be exact – was to quietly observe her surroundings and their people.

“Going to different schools and being immersed in different cultures, you learn to be nimble and still be your authentic self as you learn and speak to others – even the ones who don’t receive you with welcoming arms when you’re young,” she said.

Schleusz turned to art and music to express herself and remain grounded throughout her family’s many relocations.

Schleusz enjoys a Yerba Mate, a traditional South American caffeine drink, while sketching. She says she is proud of her Bolivian roots and continues to find ways to infuse her culture into her life in the U.S.

When it was time to choose a college, she was torn between the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston and Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. She chose LSU because her family lived in Louisiana at the time and she qualified for in-station tuition, which was more affordable for the one-income Army household. The school also offered her a broader scope of future career options and she eventually majored in psychology.

Despite her psychology degree, however, Schleusz has continued to write music, dance, paint, sing and sketch in her free time to fulfill her constant urge to create.

“I cannot be without art – I crave it,” she  said.

Her two young children, ages 7 and 10, have picked up her love of learning and art, too. Her 7-year-old daughter, for example, is always crafting and trying to create things out of scraps of materials she finds around the house. She once made each family member masks out of toilet paper rolls and colorful strings.

Almost every day, the family sits together to discuss a variety of things.  Any topic is fair game, from agave plant growth to cicada wing spans and beyond.

“Little stuff like that keeps me curious all the time,” Schleusz said. “I attribute a lot of my own curiosity from their questions. The way they see the world is fascinating.”

Schleusz and her husband are always looking for ways to make happy memories with their 7-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son.

Pursuing Purpose and Meaning

Schleusz graduated from LSU in 2002 and worked as a behavioral health therapist across Baton Rouge, Colorado Springs, and North Texas. Her career shift to interior design in 2006 was less of a change and more of a transition, she said, a chance to blend her passions in psychology, storytelling, design and art.

“I felt like I could do so much more, give more of my comprehensive self and get my hands around bigger things in interior design,” she explained.

She says growing up in different cities taught her to be agile and value a growth mindset, assets that helped ease her into her second career. In 2010, she graduated from the University of North Texas with her second bachelor’s degree – this time, in interior design. 

“I saw this as combining two paths: I was able to apply the science and psychology of people behind creativity in my new career,” she said.

Early in her search for a design job in Dallas, she told herself she would only work at a firm that could easily identify the connection between her psychology background and her interior design skills. After researching many firms in Dallas, she decided to join HKS because she believed the firm would allow her to incorporate research and innovation into design projects.

“I was like yup, this is where I see myself because there is so much opportunity at HKS,” she recalled.

She started her HKS career with the Health Interiors team in 2011.

Ana Pinto-Alexander, who is the Global Sector Director, Interiors sensed potential in Schleusz soon after she was hired at HKS and offered to mentor the novice interior designer as she navigated her new career.

“I started seeing this incredible hunger in her for understanding the purpose of design and the intent of design,” Pinto-Alexander said. “It is not only designing a beautiful space because it is a beautiful space, but her designs are intentional with how, through design, we can truly better people’s lives.”

Her most notable project while working with Health Interiors was Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital in Baton Rouge. The project had an extra layer of significance for Schleusz as a graduate of LSU who met her husband in Baton Rouge and still has many relatives there.

Despite those feel-good aspects, the project was challenging. Like many publicly-funded projects, it featured a tight budget and many stakeholders. Creatively using budget-friendly materials, Schleusz and the team were able to authentically and playfully incorporate Louisiana’s various ecosystems and wildlife into the interior design to provide the hospital’s young guests excitement and joy during their visits.

Stepping into a New Role

In 2018, HKS’ Education practice leaders reached out to Pinto-Alexander to see if she had any recommendations for an interior design director on their team. Recommending Schleusz for the position was a no-brainer, Pinto-Alexander said.

“I thought, ‘Adelia is at this pivot point and should be given the opportunity to be given a leap,” Pinto-Alexander said. “Adelia is our future. She is the future of interiors.”

In her previous profession, Schleusz had come to understand the science of the mind and how to find meaning in behavior. As a senior interior designer working in education, she would also need to grasp how interior design can influence young minds and the adults who serve them.

When she shifted to the HKS Education team, Schleusz embedded herself in the industry by speaking with educators, students, industry partners, and other stakeholders. She looked for disruptors in the industry to learn about new areas of opportunity. Now, she’s the one who gets to share her expertise with others by speaking on national and local panels and advising on various education projects.

And on those projects, Schleusz is involved from the beginning. Always looking for meaning in what’s left unsaid, she helps lead visioning sessions at the start of the project to understand the client’s needs that eventually shape the vision of the project, concept and design of the building down to the details.

“As interior designers in education, we brand how students and staff engage with learning environments,” she said. “We look for meaningful and measurable impact that balances beauty, performance, social and emotional health, and the well-being of all individuals from the perspective of inclusion, diversity, and community.”

Schleusz explores Cocoon 2.0, which she helped design with HKS’ Research team based on data from a cocoon at Chicago’s Lane Tech College Prep High School. Cocoon 2.0 has the potential to be used for HKS’ sensory well-being projects in the future.

Schleusz brings more than just her skillful and creative eye to the table, however. Whenever personalities and ideas clash, HKS Global Practice Director, Education Leonardo Gonzalez Sangri knows he can count on Schleusz to “disarm” everyone with her even-mannered demeanor and her natural ability to command a room.

“Oftentimes in design meetings and project meetings, tension is running high and people have been working long hours,” Gonzalez Sangri said. “She has a way of walking into a room, and everybody just relaxes. The tension is reduced. It’s incredible to see it happen.”

Despite her many years in psychology and design, Schleusz isn’t usually the first to speak in meetings. She leans on her childhood practice of observation, analysis and reflection before charting a path forward. Regardless of how stressful a project might be, she doesn’t lose sight of her roots and her values.

“You have got to bring your authentic self to the work,” Schleusz said. “You need to have a lot of energy. You are not fighting for just what’s beautiful; you’re fighting for an authentic experience and story, holding yourself accountable through the entire process.”

Clients seem to gravitate toward her because of this mindset, too.

Gonzalez Sangri tells the story about HKS’ work with North Texas’ Birdville Independent School District to design its new Smithfield Elementary. Working with school leaders and families, the firm designed an inclusive learning environment with a two-story Learning Commons, reading hive, makerspace cabin, and a sensory well-being hub for special education students and individualized learning environment. Schleusz was the senior interior designer on the project.

Gonzalez Sangri said the Smithfield Elementary principal was so touched by the school’s new interiors, she cried when she initially saw them. Dr. Gayle Stinson, the Birdville ISD superintendent, said Smithfield was the best school she has ever opened in her 20 years of leadership. She added that the project “sets a new standard” in education, Gonzalez Sangri recalled.

“We have a bright future because of her leadership here, and it goes beyond design,” Gonzalez Sangri said. “The most valuable thing about Adelia is the kind of leader that she is. That’s irreplaceable. You can find talented designers everywhere, but you can’t find great people everywhere. She is truly, truly great people.”

Schleusz poses with Lake Highlands High School’s art teachers in August 2021. HKS’ Education team renovated the school to include a multipurpose activity center, a cafeteria hub, and new art and science wings.